Thursday, 29 April 2010

Low Cost Airlines review -- Thai Air Asia

It is probably fair to say that ‘Asian low cost airlines’ and ‘safety’ are not synonymous in travellers’ minds. In recent years, there have been a proliferation of such airlines, and unfortunately there have been a few incidents along the way that reinforced that notion.

But one success story has been Air Asia. Just look at this action photo of the ground crew checking that the number of wings and engines is correct, for example.

In the sky with its no frills concept – ‘Now everyone can fly’ is its slogan -- since end 2001 it now boasts a fleet of 28 aircraft serving 60 destinations in Southeast Asia hubbed in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, making many destinations, especially in Thailand and the Indochina region, more accessible. (Thailand is the perfect springboard for Indochina destinations.)

In Thailand they fly to BKK, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hat Yai, Krabi, Nakkon Si Thammarat, Narathiwat, Phuket, Surat Thai, Ubon Ratchathai, and Udon Thani (which always sounds like some sort of Japanese noodle soup to me!)

So how do they live up to their philosophy of making flying affordable, easy, convenient and fun for all?

Overall, the aircraft look and feel for all the world like Virgin Blue. Clean and modern, certainly; upbeat definitely. Oh, and coincidentally red and white too. But I think the Air Asia stewardesses are prettier! The regional fleet is Boeing 737-300s.

Passengers should be reassured and impressed by the fact that Air Asia won the Skytrax World’s Best Low Cost Airline in 2009 and the TTG Best Asian Low Cost Carrier Award in 2008.

Their on-time performance is sometimes the subject of rants and blogs by detractors but it usually performs better than 85% on time (I've flown Air Asia dozens of times and encountered only two minor delays.) Meals, drinks, and seating preferences all come at an extra cost, as does any check-in baggage, especially anything over 15kg. This is the biggest drawback for most international travellers who arrive with the usual 20-plus kilos of luggage. Book online and you can now select a 20kg luggage option for a marginal extra fee.

They've recentlly started a Phuket-Chiang Mai direct service, which takes about two hours. As you fly over the amazing limestone upthrusts of Krabi and Phangna this alone is worth the airfare. Jing jing!

Caveat emptor: even though Air Asia are a 'low cost' carrier, don't be decieved by that assumption. Check the fares of other carriers first. For example, I can often get cheaper fares on Bangkok Airways on some routes, and they include a meal, normal baggage allowance, and use of the airport lounge where they have one.

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